The recognition and reporting of trafficking is often problematic, particularly in the case of children who are vulnerable to being trafficked under the pretext of education, security and health. The biennial Global Report on Trafficking in Persons (2018) noted that 30 per cent of all identified victims of trafficking in 142 surveyed countries were children.

The Covid-19 pandemic has further worsened their overall vulnerability. School closures have not only limited their access to education but also deprived children of a secure source of shelter and food. The private sector and NGOs can play a key role in addressing such vulnerabilities. They can support the government in implementing child protection schemes, particularly in hard-to-reach regions where children are especially vulnerable to being trafficked due to their socio-economic conditions and a lack of awareness among their guardians and parents.

Empowering first responders to end child trafficking

During the first 21 days of the lockdown period, the national emergency helpline for children (1098) responded to over 4.6 lakh calls from 571 districts across the country. Expanding this emergency response service to other districts may help create a child protective environment especially during public health emergencies and natural disasters.

Empowering first responders — be it the police, child protection service personnel, child welfare committees, medical staff and NGOs — is critical to ensuring that traffickers are reported and survivors adequately supported from the first response to the rehabilitation phase. In July, over 8,000 children were rescued by the Andhra Pradesh police as part of their Covid-19 drive, ‘Operation Muskaan’.

The police rescued homeless children, reunited them with their families, admitted orphans to childcare institutions and took action against perpetrators. The police also ensured that children who were Covid-19 positive were admitted to hospitals and provided special safety kits to protect the others.

Empowering first responders — be it the police, child protection service personnel, child welfare committees, medical staff and NGOs — is critical to ensuring that traffickers are reported and survivors adequately supported from the first response to the rehabilitation phase.

One such holistic model, the ‘Meghalaya Model’ has rescued over 72,000 women and children trafficked across India, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Nepal with the support of local organisations and governments in South Asia and Europe. The model has developed a unique case management system that empowers first responders to rapidly share information and track cases across borders.

Our understanding and experience of working with grassroots-level organisations in regions including the North East, West Bengal and Jharkhand suggest that first responders must also include parents, guardians, community leaders, teachers, public transport staff such as bus drivers, railway personnel and peers. Unique and historic vulnerabilities such as those observed in the ‘tea tribes’ or the tea plantations call for action by both the private sector and grassroot level organisations. Such collaborations can protect children by strengthening their immediate environment.

Areas for collaboration

Globally, the private sector is partnering with NGOs to provide employment opportunities to trafficking survivors, which would give them a second chance to rebuild their lives. Select sectors such as hospitality are collaborating with NGOs to raise awareness about trafficking while leaders in the transport sector are training their service providers to recognise and report cases of trafficking. Coalitions, such as Tech Against Trafficking are bringing together leading tech firms, law enforcement agencies, business and civil society to help combat trafficking.

In India, another way that the private sector can help check and end child trafficking is through school programmes. They can provide safe learning environments, tracking systems with embedded home visit protocols for school attendance, particularly for girl students. Similarly, with the increasing exposure and engagement of children on social media platforms, the latter can play a key role in protecting children from suspicious behaviour through customised algorithms that automatically report to dedicated police cells.

Apart from technological solutions, providing psycho-social support, nutrition and safe shelters to distressed and vulnerable trafficked children are important areas for collaboration between the private sector, civil society and the government as part of the larger Covid-19 response.

First responders, particularly the police and frontline child protection staff are continuing to put their safety at risk during these challenging times. Ensuring their health and safety is imperative. Private sector and NGOs can provide PPE kits, emergency transport to the first responders and train them in using technological solutions.

Lastly, despite the interconnectedness of economic vulnerability and trafficking, the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on trafficking are hard to assess with certainty. Private sector organisations and NGOs can collaborate and support to address existing vulnerabilities and issues of child protection, provide support to survivors, empower first responders and support the government and civil society in addressing vulnerabilities.

As a nation with such a large child and youth population, it is upon all of us to engage with this subject and find meaningful ways of being part of the solution, which is the need of the hour.

The writer is Vice-Chairman, PwC India Foundation